When Psycho first appeared, it was a shock. At first the picture seemed like a familiar Hitchcock melodrama of guilty escape: a woman, on the run with stolen money, stops for the night in a tatty motel, chats with the eccentric owner, takes a shower. And then, 44 minutes in, the movie goes a little mad. Exit leading lady, in a whirlpool of blood. New characters appear, are slaughtered or imperiled. What the hell is going on here? Audiences knew (it was one of Hitchcock's most profitable films), but the critics were annoyed, dismissive. It took a while for them to come around.
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Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho first opened in the summer of 1960, viewers were faced with a new kind of film, and they responded to it in ways that had not been witnessed since the earliest motion picture projections of the Lumières’s oncoming train shook and disoriented unsuspecting audiences with excitement and even terror. As Linda Williams explains it, when viewing Psycho, “audiences took pleasure in losing the kind of control they had been trained to enjoy in classical narrative cinema” (15). This loss of control was manifested in “gasps, screams, yells, even running up and down the aisles,” all of which was “unprecedented” (15). Lines began forming around theaters at 8:00 a.m., and theater owners reported “people going berserk in the audience” and even some who fainted (Rebello 161). Some moviegoers walked out of the film in disgust, theaters were boycotted, and churches and psychiatrists talked of banning the film. As Stephen Rebello puts it, “Never before had any director so worked the emotions of the audience like stops on an organ console” (162).
Shot on a low budget in black and white by a television crew, Psycho was Hitchcock’s antithesis to many of the larger-than-life Technicolor thrillers—Rear Window (1954), Dial M for Murder (1954), To Catch a Thief (1955), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959) that had immediately preceded it. As psychologically, socially, and narratively complex as those films are, they do not approach Psycho’s simple starkness, grotesque violence, and ugly, twisted humanity. Psycho was, in more than one sense, a completely unexpected movie, which was enhanced by several factors: Hitchcock filming the movie in the utmost secrecy; the marketing scheme utilizing a vague trailer that offered no scenes from the film itself—only Hitchcock in his familiar, televisual Alfred Hitchcock Presents persona giving a tour of the movie set while speaking in vague generalities about murders and the woman and, most importantly, Hitchcock’s now-famous insistence that no one be allowed to enter the theater once the film had begun, not even the manager’s brother, the President of the United States, or the Queen of England (God bless her)!
Because of the effect Psycho had on both the horror cinema and the American culture at large, it has been one of the most written about, analyzed, and scrutinized of Hitchcock’s films. With the exception of the Odessa Steps sequence from Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), Psycho’s infamous shower murder has been deconstructed and analyzed more than any other sequence in motion picture history. As a whole and in its separate parts, Psycho has been explored from literally every possible angle, although the favorite mode of analysis has been some variation of Freudian psychology. It has been analyzed in terms of how semiotics and psychoanalysis affect classic film structure (Hesling, 181–89); how the replacement of one narrative structure (Marion’s) by a second (Norman’s) is metaphorically the confrontation of “two psychic structures” (Bellour, 311–31); how questions of sexual identity and its containment affect the narrative structure and how identification with the characters relates to the Freudian psyche, to name just a few.
Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) uses the horror genre to explore transgression and taboo within the framework of Cold War society. Psycho focuses first on Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), a real estate secretary, who longs to marry her boyfriend Sam Loomis (John Gavin) but cannot because of financial constraints. Returning from a rendezvous with Sam, Marion steals $40,000 she is supposed to deposit in the bank, a cash transaction brought to the office by Tom Cassidy (Frank Albertson), a vulgar client of the real estate agency. Marion then begins driving toward Sam in Fairvale, California. Overwhelmed by rain, she stops at the Bates Motel where she meets Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), a seemingly nice but lonely young man. Marion resolves to return the money but is brutally stabbed in the shower by Norman's mother.
Marion's sister Lila (Vera Miles), Arbogast (Martin Balsam) a private detective and Sam, start searching for Marion. Arbogast finds her way to the motel and tries to talk to Mrs. Bates but is viciously stabbed by her. Sam and Lila probe at the motel and Lila finds out Mrs. Bates in the fruit cellar, making them notice that she is a cadaver and Norman has been using her as a cover and performing the murders. A psychiatrist concludes Norman's emotional state, debating that following murdering his mother and her devotee, he started to be obsessed by the personality of Mrs. Bates. Now, her character has taken over.
As Marion plans to take the money she whines about a headache. Cassidy lets her know that she requires a weekend in Las Vegas. Marion answers back that she is going to spend the weekend in bed and with that she wants to indicate the desire that she wanted to be in ed with Sam. After coming back to home to pack, Marion puts the money on the bed, once more representing its position as pointer of her erotic longing for Sam.
The film juxtaposes her reckless desire with Sam's cautious desire for her. Sam represents a character who understands limited transgression, but the full erotic transgression Marion enacts. Critics argue that lovers tend to negate a social order that contests more often than it grants their right to live, that never yields to such a trifling thing as personal preference. While this statement would easily apply to Marion's attempt to negate the social in favor of her desire, Sam seems to stand for the very taboo she violates. Critics have noted the doubling between Marion and Norman that the film presents. Raymond Bellour argues that initially upon viewing the film it appears that "the psychiatrist's commentary on Norman Bates has little to do with the love scene between Marion and Sam in the Phoenix hotel" (Bellour, 311–31). Bellour argues that the film is split as our sympathies shift from the subject of neurosis (Marion) to the subject of psychosis (Norman). William Rothman observes that Psycho's grand irony has Sam, in the end, writing a letter to Marion in which he confesses she was right, as her corpse jam-packed in the trunk of the vehicle, lies underneath the slough. (Rothman, 18-22)
Nevertheless, the role which most strongly reflects Marion's transgression is one who in addition pays for her erotic yearning with demise as well, the other woman who is sacrifice in the film--Mrs. Bates. If one deems the psychiatrist's remarks about Mrs. Bates, she was a clinging, difficult woman who distorted Norman into the psycho we view in the horror film. However, critics have often been in doubt about the psychiatrist's description of Mrs. Bates in the film.
While these are all useful and worthwhile methods of analysis that have shed a great deal of light on the structure and functioning of the various textual and symbolic systems at work within Psycho, they do little to explain exactly why audiences in 1960 experienced such intense reactions to the film. Most of the analysis mentioned above (and much more not mentioned) involves greatly detailed and painstaking deconstruction of the film to get at its psychological roots. And, although those roots are certainly responsible for how the film plays to audiences, they are still precisely that—roots—meaning most of them are buried far beneath the film’s more obvious surface features to which initial audiences would have first reacted.
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